Since its earliest days, Toluca Lake has been known for its natural beauty and bounty — from the wheat fields of the 1870s and fruit orchards of the 1920s to today’s wide lawns, flourishing roses and stately trees. “Fortunate are the homeowners with green thumbs as the soil in Toluca Lake seems to be exactly what the gardener ordered,” said an early Chamber of Commerce brochure. “The parks and homes in the area are beautifully landscaped and sub-tropical plants abound.”
In 1947, a few of those fortunate green-thumbed residents joined together to sustain and promote the neighborhood’s signature landscapes. Dorothy Hamilton started the Toluca Lake Garden Club — along with founding members Jean Babcock, Lillian Brummel, Betty Krause, Alma Stewart and Mae Vargo — as a way to nurture community goodwill as well as greenery. Clad in dresses, high heels and pearls, the ladies of the Garden Club worked to enhance the image of Riverside Drive through projects such as planting flowers and painting the trash cans, and the city applauded their contributions.
As the club celebrates its 70th year, “trying to find new ways to beautify our neighborhood today seems to get harder to do, with all the city’s red tape and limitations,” says Robyn Allyn, the club’s president for the past three years. “But this doesn’t stop us from trying to accomplish what we set out to do.” Although some things (including gardening attire) may have changed, the club’s core values have endured and blossomed through its members’ strong connections, preservation of tradition and dedication to making Toluca Lake a lovely place to be.
The mission of the Toluca Lake Garden Club is “to encourage interest in civic improvement, develop better horticulture practices throughout Toluca Lake, promote conservation of natural resources, and inspire all phases of California native home gardening.” At their monthly meetings, members exchange gardening knowledge, plan community projects and organize an annual fundraiser; past campaigns have included a garage sale, a cookbook, holiday home and garden tours, and a tea at Lakeside Golf Club. The group has nonprofit status through its membership in San Fernando Valley District Garden Clubs — a division of the statewide federation California Garden Clubs, Inc. — and all proceeds benefit the beautification of Toluca Lake. “The local businesses are extremely helpful with donations for our events,” notes Allyn. “The community has really rallied in support of this cause.”
One of Allyn’s goals has been to foster community outreach. An opportunity to help the next generation of gardeners arose when EnrichLA built a garden at Toluca Lake Elementary School in 2015, so the club contributed a bench and surrounding plants, and works to maintain the area for the students to enjoy. Members further reach out to community members by assembling a floral arrangement each month using plants from their gardens, which they deliver to a local business they want to show appreciation for or a resident who may be ill. The group also raises awareness at the annual Earth Day Festival and other neighborhood events, where members share their expertise on topics such as planting flowers and succulent gardening.
In addition, the Garden Club funds a yearly scholarship for a student of botany, horticulture, conservation or other plant-related topics at California State University, Northridge. Each recipient is asked to attend one of the club’s meetings to explain their research and findings. After longtime club treasurer Richard Duenckel passed away two years ago, the scholarship was renamed in his honor. “Richard was a valued member of our club and we all loved him,” Allyn comments. “The Richard Duenckel Garden Club Scholarship is a tribute to him and to his wife, Shirley, who served as our president for more than 10 years.”
Small but Mighty
With all these activities, it may come as a surprise that the Garden Club has fewer than 35 members; bylaws restrict membership to residents of Toluca Lake proper, although several who live on the outskirts have been grandfathered in. “Unlike other garden clubs in the district, which have larger memberships living throughout the greater metropolitan area, our club is made up of local residents who see each other walking on the street or run into each other at Trader Joe’s,” notes Allyn. “It’s a close-knit group of people who love to work together to beautify their city.” The result is a high level of engagement in the club, and a consistent commitment to attending meetings and participating in events.
Though unified by geography and dedication, the members are diverse in background and interests. “We all appreciate gardening, but not all of us are true gardeners,” as Allyn puts it. Although there are members who garden every day, having one’s own garden isn’t a prerequisite. Some members have large pieces of land to work with while others have a few plants in pots; some focus on flowers while others grow fruits and vegetables; some prefer formal gardens while others favor drought-tolerant and native plants.
Perhaps most important is the mix of ages, ranging from young mothers to grandmothers. One of the charter members, Leosia Shirley-Wentick, passed away only a few years ago at over 100 years old, and a current member is in her 90s. “What I love about the Garden Club is that we revere our older members,” Allyn says. “When I joined in 2010, that was one thing that attracted me — that the elders were equally important, if not more important. It’s really fun to hear their stories. They have a lot of wisdom to share, not only about gardening, but about life and Toluca Lake in general.”
For Allyn, the club’s sense of continuity and respect for the past represents an integral part of the neighborhood’s identity: “What’s interesting to me about Toluca Lake, which I just love, is that everybody knows a house by its history. You know the community by the people who came before you. There’s so much history here. People move here and stay — there are generations of families that know so much about the people who lived here and share their stories with all who will listen.”
Looking back at the club’s own history, she’s a bit wistful: “In the early days, our club would look for a project, raise money and carry out their plan. They accomplished many wonderful things over the years, but today it seems harder and harder with all the hoops we have to jump through to get anything done. Fortunately, we have the help of City Councilman David Ryu and his amazing field officer, Alice Roth, to help us work toward our goals. We are always searching for new ways to beautify Toluca Lake, and will continue to try to do so.”
Despite modern difficulties, it’s clear that the spirit of service and friendship on which the Toluca Lake Garden Club was founded remains strong. “In a world where you don’t always feel very valued or important, this group of ladies has really made an impact on me,” says Allyn. “I know that if anything ever happens, everybody’s right there to support one another. It’s a truly wonderful group.”
Check out the slideshow below for scenes from Garden Club member Shelley Zbornak’s verdant backyard garden, floral arrangements created by members, and images from the club’s history.